Five years ago, while living in Virginia, Sarah Obenauer found herself dismayed at the lack of resources available to the nonprofit where she was employed. She knew the organization was doing great work for a meaningful mission, but it simply didn’t have access to great design, marketing and technology. She knew other nonprofits shared that struggle, and she set out to do something about it.
Obenauer planned a one day event—called a Make-a-thon—to bring together design professionals to create pro-bono work for nonprofits and other community organizations in the Blacksburg/Roanoke area. This single event grew into an organization, Make a Mark, that now has chapters in 14 cities, each planning their own Make-a-thons featuring local creatives and nonprofits. The Asheville chapter, led by Sarah’s mother-in-law Julie Obenauer, held its first Make-a-thon last year. The second annual Asheville Make-a-thon is scheduled for Saturday, October 19. “The community, enthusiasm and joy that comes out of the 12-hour collaboration is truly inspiring and hard to put into words,” says Julie.
The Make a Mark team reviews a number of applications from both nonprofits looking for design work and creatives looking to donate their time. Organizations don’t have to be legally certified as a nonprofit. “We just want to support all people and organizations that are working hard to solve problems in our area, regardless of their legal status,” says Julie.
Make a Mark then chooses and assembles the volunteer makers into teams that can best address each nonprofit’s mission. The nonprofit representative, the maker team and a Make a Mark Asheville team member all gather for a planning meeting a few weeks before the Make-a- thon. “By the end of the meeting, the participants leave as partners on a project,” says Julie. “The Makers have a few weeks to think about the project and this allows them to come in the day of the Make-a-thon and hit the ground running.”
The actual Make-a-thon is a 12-hour fury of design, creativity, realization of ideas and, of course, fun. The nonprofit representative comes in mid-day for a check-in with their creative team and there is a final unveiling of each project at the end of the day. “There is cheering, there is laughter and there are usually a few tears as the projects are unveiled,” says Julie.
Children’s Home Society of NC was chosen as one of the participating nonprofits for last year’s Make-a-thon. “Our goals as an agency were to reach more families through social media; to have a digital brochure/web page that reflected the need here; and to gain photographs of one of our families that could be utilized in telling their story,” says Alex Kelly, director of family engagement at Children’s Home Society. “Our creative community volunteered more than those 12 hours—they provided their expertise, ideas and creativity where it made an impact.” That impact included Children’s Home Society closing the fiscal year with more than 900 new family applications statewide; 33 new family applications to become foster and/or adoptive parents in the Buncombe area; and a 300 percent increase in Facebook and Instagram followers for the nonprofit.
Nonprofits walk away from the Make-a-thon with tangible results, and the makers also benefit from participating in the event. Leah Shapiro, lead editor and SEO specialist at JB Media, worked on a team of three for last year’s Make-a-thon. The team was partnered with the nonprofit Babies Need Bottoms, a diaper bank for Western North Carolina. “Our goal was to create one pamphlet, but we ended up delivering two different brochures, one for caregivers and one for donors, and optimizing their website so those searching could find them more easily,” says Shapiro. “I learned so much about the issue of diaper need in WNC and why Babies Need Bottoms is so critical to caregivers in our area. The Make-a-thon is also a great way to work with people you may never otherwise work with.”
Julie says Asheville is uniquely suited for these Make-a-thons because of the intersection of community and need. “Asheville has more creativity and talent per capita than anywhere,” she says. “And there are also people in our community who are struggling—children at risk; people who don’t have enough food to eat or affordable housing; people facing illnesses, discrimination or disability; animals that need shelter.” While there are nonprofit organizations within our community addressing those problems, they are working with limited resources. “They need better design to help them, a social media campaign to build awareness, a new website so they can better reach the people they help, a new brand to help them attract volunteers and raise funding,” says Julie. “At Make a Mark events, creatives get to help nonprofits tell their stories using creativity, design and technology. It is an opportunity to show compassion in our community.”